This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center

Be it the 3 a.m. phone call from your CEO or a polite ask (even though it’s not really an ask) to leave early from a vacation to return to work, a crisis can upend your life. Crisis communication professionals must always be at the ready. But what if you don’t have crisis experience, as is the case for many public relations professionals?

In a crisis situation, you will react as you are organized and trained (Machado & Anderson, 2022). Knowing what to do can draw the line between chaos and calm. The best frameworks and policies are implemented by well-trained employees at companies that truly prioritize preparation.

Organizations sustain more long-term damage before and after a crisis than during the crisis itself (Herridge & Lee, 2022). Proactive crisis communication helps minimize damage, improve morale, and encourage healing (Bowman and Schneider, 2021). Traditional and social media have significant long-term impacts on public perception and organizational reputation, but so do messages from employees. The burning question: how do you best prepare for a crisis?

Proactive Planning

The key to effective crisis communication is proactive planning. One must consider communication logistics. Do you have enough staff for coverage? Do you need to engage a crisis communication consultant? If so, it is vital to bring them in before the crisis, so they understand your organization and a solid working relationship exists before things go south.

As it pertains to crisis response, communication teams must act quickly, but with factual information. The crisis communicator does not act on speculation or hypotheticals. Once the facts have been gathered, the communication team should compose a holding statement (Levick, 2020). Holding statements generally contain basic information to provide the media and other stakeholders and provide time to gain a deeper situational understanding and gather more information.

Other considerations are internal communication and spokesperson selection. Keep staff in the loop through internal communication tactics that can include internal messaging like e-mail or Slack, town halls, and staff huddles (depending on organizational size). Internal stakeholders often are overlooked, which can harm staff morale and organizational effectiveness (Strandberg & Vigso, 2016).

Depending on the crisis, one must choose the appropriate spokesperson (Vercic, Vercic & Coombs, 2019). For major crises, the chief executive must be front and center to convey the organization’s serious attitude regarding the matter. The organization’s designated spokesperson also must be available to triage and field media requests and relieve the chief executive in providing media updates. If technical expertise is necessary, (for example, during an environmental disaster,) subject matter experts can translate scientific or policy jargon and explain organizational response in layman’s terms.

When responding to a crisis, there are a few universal rules. First, lead with empathy to humanize the situation (Fannes & Claeys, 2023). Second, state what happened, that your organization will correct it, and what steps they will take to do so. Third, be as transparent as possible to foster credibility (Schoofs & Claeys, 2021). Sometimes, these corrective steps can position the organization as an industry leader, as it emerges from the crisis (Sellnow, Ulmer & Snider; 1998).

Risk Mitigation and Crisis Planning

A crisis can happen at any time, no matter how well one prepares and anticipates. This being said, it is important to prepare as diligently as possible to help stave off a crisis (Coombs, 2007).

Organizations should conduct environmental scanning as part of daily issues management work. Environmental scanning is applied from systems theory (Slaughter, 1999). Issues management helps prevent/mitigate potential crises by catching them before they occur, which helps maintain reputation. If an issue looks like it will fester, it probably will — break the glass on your crisis communication plan and prepare for the crisis. Finally, continuously plan and evaluate so one’s organization remains on top of things to the best of their ability.

Crisis Communication Plan Components

​​Before we dive into the elements of a crisis communication plan, there are several considerations to address. Who shapes the crisis communication policy? Does it dovetail with an emergency preparedness plan? Who activates the plan and who is part of the crisis team? Who speaks with reporters and when? Does a holding statement repository exist? The crisis communication plan should answer all of these key questions to ensure you are prepared when the crisis occurs.

The Crisis Communication Plan Format

Part 1:
Cover Page
Table of Contents

Part 2:
Executive Summary
Rehearsal Dates
Purpose and Objectives
Crisis Inventory

Part 3:
List of Key Publics
Notifying Publics
Identify Crisis Communications Team
Crisis Communication Team Directory
Identify Media Spokesperson(s)
List of Emergency Personnel and Local Officials
List of Key Media
Spokespersons From Related/Regional Organizations

Part 4:
Crisis Communications Control Center
Equipment and Supplies
Pre-gathered Information
Key Messages
Website, Blogs, and Social Media
Trick Questions
List of Prodromes (early symptoms of potential crisis – could begin as an issue)

Part 5:
Evaluation Form
After-Action Report/Hot Wash Questions and Format
Holding Statement Repository


At the end of the day, no matter how prepared one might be for a crisis, surprises will happen. However, with crisis communication planning communication teams can better position their organizations so that they are not caught completely off-guard and can spring into action.


Boman, Courtney D., and Erika J. Schneider. “Finding an Antidote: Testing the Use of Proactive Crisis Strategies to Protect Organizations from Astroturf Attacks.” Public relations review 47.1 (2021): 102004–. Web.

​​Coombs, W. Timothy. Ongoing Crisis Communication : Planning, Managing, and Responding. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2007. Print.

Herridge, Andrew S, and Xinyang Li. “Surfing for Answers: Understanding How Universities in the United States Utilized Websites in Response to COVID-19.” Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education 14.3B (2022): 111–. Web.

Levick, Richard. “Cybersecurity in the Age of Cyber-Espionage, Nation-State Hacking, and Criminal Abundance.” Of Counsel 39.4 (2020): 5–20. Print.

Machado, Sara A, and Patricia N Anderson. “The Perspectives of Preschool Teachers Regarding Their Ability to Respond to Various Crises in the Childcare Center.” Journal of Early Childhood Research : ECR (2022): 1476718–. Web.

Schoofs, Lieze, and An-Sofie Claeys. “Communicating Sadness: The Impact of Emotional Crisis Communication on the Organizational Post-Crisis Reputation.” Journal of business research 130 (2021): 271–282. Web.

Sellnow, Timothy L., Robert R. Ulmer, and Michelle Snider. “The Compatibility of Corrective Action in Organizational Crisis Communication.” Communication quarterly 46.1 (1998): 60–74. Web.

Slaughter, R.A. (1999), “A new framework for environmental scanning”, Foresight, Vol. 1 No. 5, pp. 441-451.
Strandberg, Julia Matilda, and Orla Vigsø. “Internal Crisis Communication: An Employee Perspective on Narrative, Culture, and Sensemaking.” Corporate communications 21.1 (2016): 89–102. Web.

Tkalac Verčič, Ana, Dejan Verčič, and W. Timothy Coombs. “Convergence of Crisis Response Strategy and Source Credibility: Who Can You Trust?” Journal of contingencies and crisis management 27.1 (2019): 28–37. Web.

Matt Charles, DPA, APR, teaches Crisis Communications for the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communications program and is President & Founder of Matt Charles Public Relations+Strategy.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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